FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – The PGA Championship moving to May. The peril of Bethpage Black. John Daly’s cart. Tiger Woods this. Tiger Woods that. Tiger Woods the other thing.
Just recalling the primary pre-tournament topics of discussion this week. Then the actual golf started, and, of course, it was time to start talking about Brooks Koepka again. It nearly always is, at any major lately.
Koepka’s aura is still in development, something of an enigma at center stage. The tenacious champion who has won three of the past seven majors -- and already leads here – but is not ranked No. 1 in the world. The man who just did to Bethpage Black what nobody had ever, ever done before – flattening out the hills and defoliating the rough with a 63 – but was not the one the Golf Channel followed nearly every second Thursday morning. That was Woods, from the time he arrived at the course onward.
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And the relentless competitor who did not own a bogey, on a day the rest of the field had 750 bogeys (or worse), but is not the face of his game. Not yet, anyway. Why, he hasn’t even reached the rarified air of everyone using only his first name. Tiger . . . Phil . . . Rory . . . Brooks? Then again, he’s only 29. When Woods won his first Masters, Koepka was six years old.
But here was the message Thursday at Bethpage Black, reinforcing the moral of his story the past two years: Tiger is Tiger and always will be. But come the majors, Brooks Koepka is bordering on becoming the prince of darkness, if he isn’t already. One guy finished within three shots of him Thursday; a New Zealander by way of South Korea, Danny Lee, who had eight birdies, shot 64, and that still wasn’t enough to beat Koepka’s score.
Consider this. Take away one shot into the water on No. 12 Sunday at Augusta, maybe we’re talking four Koepka major titles in his last seven -- and not even having the same conversation about Tiger Woods the past month.
“Brooks does a very good job at majors. I think we all know that,” Tommy Fleetwood was saying Thursday, as one of only two golfers within four shots of Koepka.
“It’s something that everyone has gotten used to,” Rickie Fowler seconded.
Koepka was so locked in Thursday, he matched the lowest round ever in a PGA Championship and could make a reasonable argument that he left some shots out there. For example, this noted bomber off the tee did not birdie either of the par-5 holes. “I think that was probably the highest score he could have shot today,” said Woods, from nine strokes behind.
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A Koepka surge was somewhat expected. Lee, ranked 119th in the world, not so much. If Koepka isn’t quite Woods in public persona, Lee is on another planet; a new father saying he still feels the pressure of trying to make a living in this sport, even after finishing tied for 17th in the 2016 Masters, and 13th on the 2015 money list. “Some of the top 20 guys in the world make it look easy,” he said, “but it’s not always fairy tales and unicorns out here.”
Thursday was genuine Koepka in the way he can throttle a course without muss or fuss. He shot 63 in last year’s PGA, too, and ended up winning the tournament. The fact he was playing with Woods Thursday, and all the clamor that comes up with it, did not seem to faze him.
His body language gives away nothing. His eyes seldom change temperature. His words are as matter-of-fact as a sledgehammer.
What was he thinking on No. 9, staring at the birdie putt that would give him a 63?
“Nothing. Just make it.”
Might his recent run in majors be intimidating to the field – as if he were, you know, the other guy in his group Thursday?
“I don’t know, you’re going to have to ask them.
“Doesn’t matter to me. I’m here to do one job, and that’s play a good round of golf. It doesn’t bother me too much what anybody else thinks.”
Was it important for him to make some sort of playing statement Thursday, with all the reheated Tiger craziness swirling around him?
“It was great that Tiger won Augusta, but we’re at a new week now. I’ve just got to go out there and focus on me, I’m not really concerned about what’s going on. You know what you’re going to get when you play with him. Obviously, everybody in New York is going to be cheering for him, and it’s going to be loud, especially if he makes a putt. You’ve just got to keep battling and find a way to get through it.”
The Tiger roars Thursday – Woods had three birdies and an eagle – kept getting muted. He also had two double bogeys and three bogeys. It was something of a stormy 72. Meanwhile, Koepka jetted through his own blue skies, with only Lee currently in his air space.
True, you can’t make too much of anything on Thursday. The list of 16 players under par after the first round included names such as Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Phil Mickelson and Fowler. “There’s a lot of good players playing this week, and it’s just the first day,” Fowler cautioned. There is plenty of time for Koepka to be caught, but does anyone expect him to go away?
He said his confidence has never been higher. “I think I’m still learning, understanding my game . . . and I think over the next few years, I’m excited for what’s to come. I understand a lot more about my misses, where to hit it, and major championships, I just suck it up. You don’t always have to aim at the flag like you do in regular events. Sometimes, it’s just about how few bogeys and doubles you make this week.”
What he did Thursday brings into focus again a nagging question about the landscape of golf. Why isn’t this guy more of a runaway superstar? Three more days like this, and that issue will really take over Bethpage Black.
“I’ve opened up. I’m being me, so I’m happy with how I’m communicating a little bit better. I feel like I’m finally in a good spot now to say things that I probably couldn’t say before, or was maybe afraid of. The rest of it, it’s just what people think. It’s up to them.”
There’s been one visitor to Bethpage this week who took a quick liking to him. Former Mets star David Wright is helping market this event, and dropped by the practice range for a chat. Koepka comes from a baseball family – his great uncle is Pirates National League MVP Dick Groat. “He wanted to talk baseball, I wanted to talk golf,” Wright said. “So we were trying to ping-pong it back and forth off each other.”
Koepka still won’t be confused with a talk show host, but his game at the majors hasn’t needed a microphone. It was loud enough Thursday to even drown out Tiger Mania, if not Danny Lee. Three more days, and we’ll see if there is a fairy tale afoot at the PGA Championship, or even some unicorns.